Memories of a lost culture

I've just finished reading Twenty Years A-Growing by Maurice O'Sullivan (Muiris Ó Súilleabháin) (OUP 1953 reissued 2000).  It is the moving autobiography, translated delightfully form the Irish by Moya Davies and George Thomson, of Maurice who was born on the island of the Great Blasket off the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in 1904. This and a handful of other books written by or for members of the Blasket Island community have become a permanent testament to a traditional way of life that vanished in 1953 when the decision was made to abandon the settlement and move to the mainland.


The island group, six in all, are off the western end of the Dingle peninsular. The inhabitants were often cut off by the elements and relied on the wild rabbits, sea-birds and their eggs for food, as vividly described in O'Sullivan's book. He himself had an unusual childhood for an islander; his mother having died when he was a baby, he was brought up in Dingle and until he was seven spoke only English. In 1911 he family came to take him back to the Blasket islands and Maurice relates in amusing details all the exploits and adventures he and others got up to. His knowledge of English was clearly an advantage to him and enabled him to travel further and communicate more widely than others of his community.


As well as the remarkable literary heritage triggered by the interest of anthropologists and linguists at the end of the 19th century who realised that the Blasket islanders way of life was one that could hardly survive much longer, there is now a large museum on the mainland overlooking the islands where those touring the Dingle peninsular can get a taste of this remote outcrop of civilisation. The islands are still owned by members of the community but there are no permanent residents.


It is difficult to describe the impact of the book without the wonderful Irish idioms and turns of phrase that have been conveyed in the translation. The book narrates the first twenty years of Sullivan's life and concludes with his journey to Dublin where he intends to sign up for military service. He skilfully conveys his astonishment as an islander arriving in a large city for the first time.


We reached  O'Connell Bridge and got out. Trams and motors roaring and grating, newspaper-sellers at every corner shouting at the height of their heads, hundreds of people passing this way and that without stopping, and every one of them, men and women, handsomely got up.


The trouble now was to cross the street. A man would make the attempt, then another, an eye up and an eye down, a step forward and a step back, until they would reach the other side.


'Oh Lord, George, this is worse than to be back off the quay of the Blasket waiting for a calm moment to run in.'


He laughed. 'Here is a calm moment now,' he said suddenly. Off we went in a flutter, George gripping my arm; now forwards, now backwards, until we landed on the opposite side.



Celebs at war

I recently finished Kate Adie's book 'Fighting on the Home Front' (Hodder and Stoughton 2013): The Legacy of Women in World War One. Having tried to put together a picture of what the inhabitants of our parish in Cambridge were doing in WWI, I had soon realised quite how difficult it is to research the lives of women. Not that comprehensive information about the menfolk is easy to find. There is considerable luck involved in collating information about those on active service. Although all surviving military records of those who survived the war are in theory available on-line, a significant proportion of this archive was destroyed in WWII. Surprisingly, virtually no official War Office records have been kept of those who were killed; information about these can only be gleaned from Commonwealth War Grave data, regimental records and the research of family and enthusiasts. Trawling through on-line newspapers, baptism and marriage registers brings up names not found elsewhere, even of those who died, but there is no guarantee of being able to create a complete record.


With women, the task has been even harder. Even though here in Cambridge we know there were several hospitals, large and small, where professional and volunteer nurses would certainly have been employed, until a few months ago, there was no easy on-line access to those records which have survived. Now at last the Red Cross has commenced the digitalising of its records of volunteers and this has brought to light the many women, and men, who volunteered to work in the hospitals as nurses, cooks or many other roles. Awards were made to those who by the end of the war had clocked up thousands of hours of volunteering, not just in Cambridge but sometimes further afield, even near the front-line in France.


Kate's book paints a vivid picture of all the roles that women found themselves in - factory work, administration, net-making, postal delivery, policing and entertaining. The last category, which is the one of the first which the book covers, intrigued me. Kate points out that one of the careers of 1914 in which a woman's role was accepted unquestioningly was that of entertainment - musical hall and acting. She goes on to describe how celebrities of the day such as Vesta Tilley, went on to use their fame and attraction to actively encourage recruitment. She even dressed herself in khaki and was allowed by the War Office to have soldiers in her acts. Other stars who helped in the recruitment drives included Australian Florrie Forde and Marie Lloyd.


Most of the names of these celebrities are forgotten; however their faces live on through the thousands of images that appeared on postcards of the period. A little research uncovers a variety of ways in celebrities of the period contributed to the war effort.


Many, such as Jean Aylwin, the Scottish actress and singer, Pauline Chase, an American who settled in London, Lily Elsie, star of The Merry Widow, and Ellen Terry, the foremost Shakespearean actress of her day, performed in benefit concerts throughout the war.


The Danish/British ballet dancer Adelina Genee who did much to raise the status of ballet in Edwardian England, went on a sixteen-week tour in 1916 of Australia. The Australian navy cheered wildly when she danced a hornpipe at a benefit show called "Navy Night." Ada Reeve, the pantomime and music hall star similarly toured extensively in Australia and South Africa. Ellaline Terriss, the singer, and her husband Seymour Hicks toured France after the outbreak of WWI to give concerts to British troops.


Zena Dare, a very well-known singer and music hall performer, had married the Hon. Maurice Brett, second son of Viscount Esher in 1911, when she was 23 and at the height of her career. Zena retired from the theatre to have a family. However, she then work for three years nursing injured soldiers at Mrs Vanderbilt's American Hospital in France.


Maxine Elliott was an American actress and business woman. During World War I she moved to Belgium and volunteered both her income and time to the cause of Belgian relief, for which she received the Order of the Crown (Belgium). She had planned to marry, but her husband-to-be was killed on May 9th 1915 at the Battle of Aubers Ridge.


Beatrice Forbes-Robertson was an actress from the age of 17 and a suffrage speaker in England before moving to New York in 1907. During WWI she was president of the British War Relief Association, raising funds in New York for military hospitals abroad. She also wrote several books including What Women Want: An Interpretation of the Feminist Movement, The Nest Builder (1916, novel), and Little Allies: A Story of Four Children (1918).


More information about these and other celebrities of the period can be found:

First race of the year

First walking race of the year. Five miles at Donkey somewhere down in London. Equalled my time of two years ago. That seems good to me. I'm as fit as I was two years ago. Not a teenage athlete any more. If I am as fit in ten years as I was two years ago that will be quite an accomplishment.


That's the thing about veteran athletics. You just know that your times, distances, heights are going to get worse. However, the silver lining is that as you get older your results are compared with your peer group. So, the moment you reach 55 you are suddenly the youngest in the next age band. Once you are in your late 50s you can't wait to get to 60 and be the youngest again.


Actually, I wasn't feeling so fit. Back ache. Advice from John my coach is to see an osteopath. Never seen one of these before. I find out that my sister in law, a GP, might not approve. But on the other hand I would get to see an osteopath a lot quicker that a specialist on the NHS if I went to see my GP and complained of slight back ache.


Back to veteran athletics. There really is an extraordinary world of septuagenarian and octogenarian runners, walkers, jumpers and pole vaulters out there. Plus a load more younger athletes who are just a bit older than those you see on the TV. I regularly get beaten by those ten years older than I am, and I am quite quick for my age. (I now know why the school children I used to teach complained about our forays to local museums). If I want to know how I rank I can always look it up on Power of Ten. This amazing on-line database enables all active athletes to rank themselves against any other individual or group in the UK. After today, I will be able to see my UK ranking for the 5 mile walk against everyone else who has done the same distance this year, last year, the year before ..... I haven't actually checked to see how far back the records go.


So, I finished 8th I think with a time that means I can honestly tell people I walk at 6 mph. But even better, I got a medal. Not for today, not even for last year, but for a race I did in 2014. Now that is impressive; a community where no achievement is forgotten, even two years after the event.


Why do the walk in the first place. Well, fed up with my phone telling me that I wasn't reaching the target of 6,000 steps imposed on me, I thought 5 miles would do. For the first time, I get a nice encouraging message - well done, you have exceeded your daily target.


So, what will I need to do tomorrow?

Social life in the New Year

Currently in two new relationships. One started at the beginning of December. Very sophisticated and insouciant. Japanese - only arrived in the UK at the beginning of November. Knows when I am there without any acknowledgement; purrs gently at the touch of my hand. Extraordinarily aware of everything going on around us. Spoke to me for the first time a couple of days ago but when I spoke back seemed to have a bit of difficulty understanding my accent. However I am sure we'll get over that after a few dictation lessons.


Actually this development was prompted by the other newcomer. A lot more brash. Pointed out this morning that I hadn't had any water to drink today and my sleep patterns are poor. Each morning tells me which chores need to be done and then, if not completed, exactly how long do I want to wait before a reminder. I don't want to disappoint. I drank two glasses of water straight off and came clean about my two cups of caffeine. Has decided that I should walk 6,000 paces a day. Fine, but then tells me the next morning exactly how big my margin of failure has been. Seems to have difficulty though telling the difference between running and walking though. I don't run; just walk very fast.


It was this one who got the talking going. Suddenly there was obviously this conversation going on to which I wasn't a party. Are they talking about me or have they hit it off. Perhaps I need to bit a bit more proactive in my conversation. All this typing on its own can't be good for a relationship. The one has so much to offer, so much data, so many ways of entertaining, but I must keep my eyes on the road and not be distracted. The other is just hungry for information about me, every number, every measurement and then feeds it back to me, just for reassurance I guess. Even knows my finger-print. Buzzes every few minutes just to say, "I'm here. Pick me up."


So these are my new relationships in 2016. Can't help feeling I am not really in control but living under the illusion of more control than I could have imagined. I can now programme my TV recorder from anywhere. I can use one to flash the lights on the other, to tell it when to recharge its batteries, to ..... well, I don't really know yet. Everyday brings some new surprise. Perhaps that is why they seem like relationships at the moment. When the novelty wears off they will be cast aside, unless by then, they are indispensable.


PS: the brash one just complained of boredom. Feels neglected. This is getting out of hand.

A postcard collector's confession

My translator, N, sent me a link to my interview with local radio. I am now officially a postcard collector.


I suspect that not many collect postcards now. What indeed would one imagine a modern post card collector to do. Most of those younger than me have probably rarely sent a postcard in their lives; they send captioned Instagram and Facebook photos now - the new postcard, ironically not so distant from the early postcards which were often produced by local photographers for private use. What else can you do with postcards; our neighbours have covered their kitchen cabinet doors with a lifetime's worth of postcards. We did that once; rather backfired when so-called peel-on peel-off glue turned out to be stick-fast.


Whatever those a century ago thought about their colourful missives, the fact is that they have survived in their thousands. They were collectable even then; colour was a novelty and a luxury. Competition was fierce amongst printers and elaborate cards using glitter, silk, fold-outs, pressed flowers and a host of other decorations were the norm. The printer Rafael Tuck issued a prize challenge in 1900 for the largest collection of used Tuck brand postcards over eighteen months. 20,365 was the winning number. They ran the competition again; this time it was over 25,000. Edwardian postcard albums attest the extraordinary imagination required of a postcard publisher to keep his customers returning for more. And of course, most of these postcards had to be sent. At the price of a 1/2d stamp this was evidently very affordable and gave ordinary people the chance to keep in touch.


What did they say? Well, as with all postcards up to the present, the messages could be infinitely banal. "How's the weather? We're in the pink! Dear wifey!" on so many British cards. But look abroad and the situation is different. French and German cards I have seen cram on as many words as possible often in the finest of copperplate. And what they were used to saying was in a style far more expressive and description. That is where N, my translator, comes in. She has translated and written notes on most of my French Great War postcards.


French postcards are in a class of their own for imagination and imagery. Yes, there were a lot of nude images in the early days, but the artistic variety soon blossomed and made full use of special photographic effects, super-imposing images to convey longing, romance and humour. There are obvious obsessions with cabbages and fish. French babies appear miraulously from cabbages, not gooseberry bushes, and everyone seems to carry fish around on April 1st.


PS. If anyone can read the German cards I am very happy to post up their translations. They are beyond my German unfortunately.